Narnia and Mysticism
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”
I first read those words in 1964.
Visiting Narnia Again
While enchanted by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories as stories, I knew nothing about their religious dimensions. Now having visited Narnia again, not only do I appreciate the religious dimension, but the mystical as well.
Immediately after finishing The Last Battle with its description of Heaven (“Further up and further in!”), I began Jason Baxter’s new book, An Introduction to Mysticism: Recovering the Wildness of Spiritual Life. (NB: In addition to being my office mate at Wyoming Catholic College, Jason is also a dear friend.)
Mysticism, writes Baxter, can be scary. The word has overtones of Eastern and New Age spiritualities. It smells of subjectivity, of putting personal revelations above “the Faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and of unhealthy, divisive elitism.
I’ve been in Christian circles long enough to know that those dangers are real.
Mysticism Needs To Be Reckoned With
Nonetheless mysticism needs to be reckoned with because, as Baxter points out, the Bible is full of mysticism.
For example, Baxter reminds us, “Moses conceived the audacious desire to see the face of God uncovered, and the Lord spoke to him ‘face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend’” (Exodus 33:11). This seeing and speaking to God face to face, argues Baxter, is the heart of mysticism. Let me add that it is the heart of the Christian Gospel.
Such mystical passion has fallen on hard times in the Church today. Perhaps we don’t know or don’t care that the great end of life is to see God face to face?
Moses saw God often. Isaiah saw God “high and lifted up.” Daniel saw the same vision of God (Daniel 7:9) that John would see centuries later (Revelation 1:12ff). Everyone who saw Jesus saw God: in humility before His resurrection and glorified after His resurrection. In the end, the New Jerusalem, our home forever, will glow with the uncreated light of God’s unmediated presence (Revelation 22:5).
An Infinite Desire
“Mysticism,” writes Baxter, “is founded on the belief that every soul is made with an infinite desire that only an infinite bliss can satisfy.” And infinite bliss does arrive with correct ideas about God. It requires seeing God whose joy knows no bounds. Such seeing is beyond thought, beyond reason, beyond being as we now experience and understand it.
In the last canto of Paradiso, Dante’s pilgrim gazes on God:
And so my mind, suspended utterly,
held its gaze still immobile and intent,
and ever kindled was my wish to see.
Before that Light one’s will to turn is spent:
one is so changed, it is impossible
to shift the glance, for one would not consent,
Because all good — the object of the will —
is summed up in it, for it alone is best:
beyond defect, there, whole, perfect, still. (Canto 33:97-105)
All Long To See Aslan
Throughout the Narnia books, all long to see Aslan, the Great Lion, King of Beasts, the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea who created Narnia, rules it, and judges it. Sometimes, they do see him.
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As the four children struggle through a Narnian forest in Prince Caspian, Lucy — the most mystical — wakes in the middle of the night hearing someone calling her name. She follows.
A circle of grass, smooth as a lawn, met her eyes with dark trees dancing all around it. And then — oh, joy! For He was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight, with his huge black shadow underneath him.
…She never stopped to think whether he was a friendly lion or not. She rushed to him. She felt her heart would burst if she lost a moment. And the next thing she knew was that she was kissing him and putting her arms as far round his neck as she could and burying her face in the beautiful rich silkiness of his mane.
“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,” sobbed Lucy, “At last.”
Lucy is repeatedly rewarded with seeing Aslan because Lucy, more than the others, is on the lookout. Aslan is her joy and she pursues that joy, always ready to see him, kiss him, hold him.
Pursuing Our Mystical Passion
Such mystical passion has fallen on hard times in the Church today. Is it because we’re lazy? Perhaps we don’t know or don’t care that the great end of life is to see God face to face? Or does it seem a small thing?
Perhaps we are simply so earthbound that we can’t conceive what seeing God face to face might mean. As Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Stop being easily pleased.
Maybe it’s time to take a cue from Narnia, Dante and Jason Baxter. For as twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner noted, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”
Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”